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Vote By Mail: How Ohio's Absentee-Only Election Will Work

A bowl of stickers for those taking advantage of early voting, Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Steubenville, Ohio.
Gene Puskar
Associated Press
A bowl of stickers for those taking advantage of early voting, Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Steubenville, Ohio.

Ohio’s primary election is back on after Gov. Mike DeWine signed a sweeping package of coronavirus-related legislation. The new “election day” is April 28, but don’t plan on visiting your polling place—for the vast majority of Ohioans, the remainder of the election will be carried out through the mail.

That's uncharted territory for local officials like Jane Hanley, who runs the Fairfield County Board of Elections. The midsize Ohio county sits southeast of Columbus.

Still, Hanley says her office is ready for an ad hoc absentee-only election. In fact, they began planning for it as soon as the governor closed polling places on March 17.

“That very next day, we chose to go ahead and ramp up our order as if we were going to do a mail-out balloting process, because we felt that that was the way that it was going to go,” Hanley explains. “And so we ordered enough for 105% of the registered voters in Fairfield County to actually do absentee voting.”

How Voting Will Work

Election boards around the state will have their contingency plans tested over the next month. Under the new election provisions, registered voters who didn’t already participate in the primary can request an absentee ballot. But that process will take time.

Voters can download a ballot request formand print it, or call their local board of electionsand have one sent.

Either way, voters will have to fill out the request form, mail the form to their local board, then wait for the board to mail back a ballot. Finally, voters must fill out their ballot and mail it back to the board.

In many circumstances, this entire process will involve four trips through the mail. Ballots must be requsted by April 25, and postmarked by April 27, to be counted.

Limited in-person voting will be allowed April 28 for Ohioans with disabilities.

Ohio Voting Guide: What To Know About The 2020 Election

Jen Miller from the Ohio League of Women Voters says that’s a problem.

“Bottom line is, if you have not requested your absentee ballot, you need to do that immediately,” she says. “You will not have an absentee request mailed to you, and you cannot go online and fill out all the information to get your ballot.”

Miller contends the barriers to getting a ballot and the short timeline make the process unconstitutional. She argues that, even if every remaining voter automatically received a ballot, a month isn’t enough time.

Miller points out states that normally conduct mail-in elections give voters more like 10 weeks to respond. 

Late Monday, Miller's group, along with the ACLU of Ohio and other voting rights organizations, filed a federal lawsuit against the state. Their complaint argues that April 28 is too soon a deadline and would disenfranchise voters around the state.

The groups urge the judge to re-open voter registration and compel state officials to automatically send ballots to the remaining pool of registered voters.

Details To Be Determined

In a statement shortly after the plan’s passage, Secretary of State Frank LaRose took issue with the timeline as well. Although he committed to carrying out the legislation as passed, LaRose criticized lawmakers for failing to include automatic ballot request forms and postage paid return envelopes.

“Today my friends in the legislature did the right thing by extending deadlines and postponing requirements on everything from taxes to school testing, so it’s disappointing that they’ve instead chosen to significantly reduce the time provided for Ohio to bring this primary to a close," LaRose wrote. "The proposal that Governor DeWine, Lt. Governor Husted and I laid out was preferable, and unlike the plan enacted today, our proposal would have concluded the election by putting a ballot request directly in the hands of every voter along with a postage-paid return envelope."

South of Columbus, Michele Lockard runs Pickaway County’s board of elections. 

“I believe we’re in a decent position to start,” she says. “It depends on the numbers that are going to roll in on how many people want to participate. If we would have every person vote, we have around 35,000 registered voters, it would probably be a little bit of a strain to do an all-mail election.”

Lockard says they’re working to install a secure drop box as soon as possible for voters who don’t want to use the mail.

In Franklin County, elections board director Ed Leonard says participation is ramping up fast.

“For the entire pre-March 17 election cycle, we had over 20,000 ballots by mail,” Leonard says. “Now we’re at about 6,800 in just the span of a week.”

State lawmakers turned to an absentee election as a kind of last resort, to maintain social distancing during a growing health crisis. But to allow voters to stay home, election administrators still have to show up. It’s an irony that isn’t lost on them.

In Fairfield County, Hanley notes they’ve split their team into two groups to avoid cross-contamination. In Pickaway County, Lockard says they’re ready to declare an envelope supplier “essential” under the stay-at-home order if they run short.

And in Franklin County, Leonard explains they’re cutting back everywhere they can.

“We really focus on what are the tasks that have to be done here on site,” he says. “And what’s the minimum number of folks that we can have on site to do that.”

DeWine signed the measure establishing election guidelines during his coronavirus briefing on Friday. But with the new lawsuit, it's unclear whether that plan will hold.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.